Erpelding resigns to join Boise Metro Chamber


House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding (Source: Idaho Legislature)

By Devon Downey, Idaho Reports

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding of Boise has resigned from the legislature to join the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, one month before the Legislature convenes for the 2020 session. In his resignation letter, Erpelding cited his family’s future and the need to advance his professional career as reasons why he is leaving.

Following Erpelding’s resignation, Rep. Ilana Rubel of Boise will be the interim minority leader.

Erpelding was first elected to the House in 2012 and became minority leader in 2017. In his statement, Erpelding lamented the polarization in Idaho, writing “I encourage my legislative colleagues to increase bipartisan efforts rather than kowtow to the extreme views being advocated on both ends of the spectrum.”

When asked on Wednesday morning what policy areas could see bipartisan legislation, Erpelding cited education, transportation, and Medicaid. “The culture of the legislature is being pulled apart by what I think is dysfunctional parties. Compromise is not incentivized.”

This isn’t to say that Erpelding disliked serving in the Legislature. “I’m going to miss the people and the opportunity to directly impact policy,” Erpelding said. “I’m going to miss it, but I’m excited to advocate my beliefs with the Chamber.”

The resignation of Erpelding follows high profile turnover within the Idaho Democratic Party, which recently lost its political director and abruptly fired their executive director before their hiring was even announced. It also comes one day after Idaho’s highest-profile Democrat, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, lost the runoff for his reelection in a contentious race that divided Treasure Valley Democrats.


Want to avoid long lines in Caldwell? Vote early.

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Planning to vote in the Caldwell city council runoff? Be prepared for the potential of a long line.

While Ada County is opening up all its 88 regular polling places for the Boise mayoral runoff, Caldwell voters have just one option on Dec. 3: the Canyon County Elections Office in Caldwell.

For the Nov. 5 election, Caldwell had 18 precincts, and 3,290 people voted in the now-contested race for City Council Seat 6.

Canyon County wasn’t prepared for a runoff, and announced it would hold one only after a challenge from city council candidate Evangeline Beechler to Caldwell’s interpretation of the word “majority” in city code. Boise, which spells out a provision for runoffs in city code, had been anticipating the possibility since before the regular election.

In its Wednesday press release, Canyon County acknowledged that election day will be busy. “The Elections Office encourages as many voters as possible to take advantage of early voting to help reduce potential lines and wait times for the runoff election on December 3,” the press release says. Early voting starts on Monday, Nov. 18 and ends Nov. 29. The office will be closed on Thanksgiving.

Like Ada, Canyon County will automatically send absentee ballots to those who had requested one during the regular election. Caldwell voters will also receive a postcard in the mail informing them of the single location for the runoff.

Canyon County public information officer Joe Decker said the decision to have just one polling location is partly to keep costs down, but also because of the compressed timeline to organize the unanticipated runoff. Decker pointed to the logistical difficulties of securing the normal polling places, as well as enough volunteers, with only a few weeks to go.

Instead, the single polling place will be staffed by county employees. The elections office, which has just 10 parking spaces, plus one handicap spot, is also looking at reserving additional street parking and parking across the street for voters, Decker said.

There is just one item on the Caldwell ballot: the runoff between Beechler and John McGee. Still, even if only a fifth of those who turned up on Nov. 5 show up in three weeks — 658 — that will still be almost twice as many voters than showed up to Caldwell’s busiest precinct on election day.

To avoid long lines, Decker stressed early voting.

“As many people as we can get in to vote early, the less likely it will be that Dec. 3 is just a madhouse at the elections office,” Decker said.



Brent Coles once agreed to never run for office again.

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

As former Boise Mayor H. Brent Coles prepares once again to enter the political world, the disgraced politician is staying mum on an agreement he made with a judge to not run for elected office in the Gem State.

According to court documents, Coles once agreed to be “disqualified indefinitely and permanently from holding any office in the state of Idaho.”


That promise was made in 2003 after Coles pleaded guilty to one count of misusing public funds and one count of presenting a fraudulent voucher while serving as Boise’s mayor.

At the time, 4th District Judge Thomas Neville told Coles he was “disqualified indefinitely and permanently” from running for elected office in the judge’s initial withholding judgment and probation order. 

In Idaho, these agreements work like a contract. Coles agreed to the terms to receive probation.

Idaho Reports reached out to Judge Neville through colleagues and the Idaho courts to interpret the order but were unable to reach him.  

Idaho Reports also reached out to Coles via Facebook Messenger and asked him what his understanding of the probation agreement was and received this comment:  Screen Shot 2019-09-13 at 5.38.44 PM.

Essentially, Coles provided us with a new way to say “no comment.” 

During the sentencing hearing back in 2004, Coles was more verbose. 

“I apologize to taxpayers and citizens of this community in whose trust I broke,” Coles said. “So I want you to know I accept full responsibility for that.” 

Coles continued: “I am aware of the pain and anguish that has occurred in this community. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

News coverage at the time characterized Coles as penitent, aware and thankful for the mercy Neville showed him. 

Tammy Rice, the Boise Human Resources Director at the time, received a harsher sentence from Judge Nevile, despite playing arguably a smaller role. She was the only woman implicated in the scandal with her two male coworkers and was the only one who went to jail in handcuffs. 

According to the Idaho Statesman at the time, Coles reported to jail within 30 days at his leisure.

Judge Neville pointed to the acts of repentance and acknowledgment of guilt as the reason for Coles receiving a lighter sentence then Rice.

This month, Coles formally filed to run for Boise Mayor. He will be on the ballot again when Boise citizens next vote on their chief executive officer.

The Secretary of State and county clerks do not have mug shots on their wall of people who can’t run for office. The official vetting of candidates is equivalent to the vetting of voters. 

“We confirm their voter registration and any other statutory requirements necessary to run for that office,” said Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane. “Often this is confirmed by the voter registration information.”

Neither McGrane, nor any other clerk, research the record of a candidate to find out if a judge, a governor, a president, or a spouse said they are unfit for office. 

“That’s not our job, that’s your job,” said several people who I talked to for this story. 

What a judge said to or about a politician has no bearing on an election in Idaho if the voter registration does not concur. 

Here is a possible reason why Mayor H. Brent Coles gets to ignore what 4th District Judge Thomas Neville told him: Sixteen days after the order the state changed the order. 

The reason for the change appears to be that Judge Neville overreached his jurisdiction. 

“The Court cannot enforce a condition beyond the time that it has jurisdiction,” said Tara Malek, owner of the Idaho law firm Smith + Malek. “Here, the court retained jurisdiction over Mr. Cole for three years.”  

“Indefinitely and permanently”  is longer than three years.

“As a result of completing the terms,” said Idaho’s former U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, “my view is that the condition of not running for office is no longer binding, if it ever was.”

So that means Coles is legally allowed to run for office. It was not within Judge Neville’s power to stop him. The moral and ethical questions, however, are left to the voters.

“(Coles) so abused his position of power that a court felt compelled to prevent him from holding public office.” said Malek. “To me, it says this person was a danger to the public.”

We all deserve a second chance and 16 years is a long time. As Coles steps back into public life, it might be useful for voters to remember what he said when he left it. 

“I was elected by the citizens of this community to do the right thing every day with every dollar and with every penny — every ounce of trust they gave to me,” Coles said. “I broke that trust, and I know it, and I accept that responsibility. I blame no one else but myself.”



Birth certificate testimony previews upcoming legislative tensions

By Devon Downey, Idaho Reports


Members of the public testify at a public hearing on a proposed rule change affecting minors who wish to change the gender markers on their birth certificates. Melissa Davlin/Idaho Reports

On Monday, the Department of Health and Welfare held a public hearing in Boise on birth certificate changes for transgender youth, with testimony that highlighted tensions likely to come up during the 2020 legislative session.

The proposed rule would require anyone under the age of 18 to get a signed form by a medical professional stating that the change requested on their birth certificate matches their gender identity.

Out of the 29 people who testified in the crowded room, 20 of them spoke against changing birth certificates at all. Many argued that birth certificates are historical documents that are a snapshot of the person at the time of their birth and therefore should not be altered. A few also argued that there is a difference between sex and gender identity, and birth certificates only state sex.

A 2018 court decision mandates that Idaho must have a process for individuals to change the gender on their birth certificate. That process has been in place since April 2018. The requirement that minors must have doctor sign-off for that change went into effect in July.

Between April 2018 and May 2019, there were 101 applications for birth certificate gender changes, according to the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Of those, 15 were for minors.

While the testimony was over two-to-one against birth certificate changes, this hearing was specific to the requirement that minors get a medical attestation prior to changing their birth certificate. IDHW held six public hearings throughout the state in August on their full rule docket on temporary rules, including the process that is already in place to change a birth certificate. Those hearings drew a handful of comments on that process.

Five people who testified specifically mentioned the proposed rule, and all of them were opposed — though they supported allowing people to change their birth certificates. 

“All my identity documents are now congruent with my name and gender identity,” said Emilie Jackson-Edney, one of the women who spoke in opposition to the medical form required for minors. “All of these allow me to navigate smoothly through society.”

“It is necessary for youth to be able to have records that accurately reflect their gender identity,” said Annie Hightower of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.  Hightower does not “think there should be additional burdens on youth being able to do that.”

The hearing drew a handful of lawmakers, including Reps. Steve Harris, Dorothy Moon, Tammy Nichols, and Melissa Wintrow, as well as Sen. Regina Bayer, though only Nichols and Wintrow testified.

Public hearings will continue on this proposed rule on September 24th in Twin Falls and September 25th in Idaho Falls.

Social issues like this are likely to be front and center this session due to the ongoing Adree Edmo case, concerning an Idaho inmate who has asked for, and has been denied, gender confirmation surgery. After the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Edmo, Governor Brad Little has appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the legislature may act to prevent future cases like Edmo’s. 

Lawmakers have also discussed reexamining higher education funding because of the cost of some diversity and inclusion programs, like Black Graduation, Rainbow Graduation, and proposed gender-inclusive restrooms at Boise State University. “The taxpayers are paying for to help fund these universities, and basically, we’re paying for our kids to be indoctrinated,” Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, told Breitbart News Saturday in a September 21st interview.

Idaho Reports will continue to report on these issues and more leading up to the upcoming legislative session.

Melissa Davlin contributed to this report.


Vaping industry has already laid groundwork for potential legislative fights

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Tuesday’s news that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare had confirmed its first two cases of vaping associated respiratory illness in the state only added to the national discussion over what, if anything, should be done about e-cigarettes. But the debate on vaping has already started in Idaho.

In the Secretary of State’s lobbyist database, Idaho Reports found four vaping-related companies that employ a total of seven lobbyists. Those companies include Swisher, a sister company to electronic cigarette company E-Alternative Solutions; vaping industry leader Juul; Altria, which owns multiple tobacco companies like Phillip Morris and has a 35 percent stake in Juul; and Reynolds American Incorporated, which owns RJ Reynolds Vapor.

Altria, by far, was the biggest spender. In 2019, Sacramento-based Altria lobbyist Amanda Klump reported spending a total of $16,926,01, making her the sixth on the list of highest-spending lobbyists this year, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Those expenses included spending $500 for inaugural ball tickets for House Majority Leader Mike Moyle and his wife, Idaho State Tax Commissioner Janet Moyle, in January.

Altria has also donated to a number of Idaho legislative candidates, giving about $23,000 in the 2018 election cycle alone.

During the 2019 legislative session, Klump reported spending related to lobbying on three specific bills: the two voter initiative bills that were ultimately vetoed by Gov. Brad Little, and a bill that would have added a 15 percent tax to electronic cigarettes. The latter bill, sponsored by Reps. John Gannon and Greg Chaney, stalled in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee in late March.

Chaney told Idaho Reports on Wednesday that Gannon had been the driving force on the bill. As for whether it will come back in the 2020 session? “In light of recent events, it would be even more relevant,” Chaney said.

The tobacco industry as a whole isn’t immune to the recent scrutiny on vaping. The news that two Idahoans have been hospitalized for vaping-associated lung issues prompted Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Fred Martin to post on social media that he wants to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21.

“It is now time to pass the Tobacco 21 bill (that I have introduced twice),” Martin wrote on a public Facebook post. “It would help to keep e-cigarettes out of the hand of middle and high schoolers before more of our children are harmed.”


Schroeder, Zito announce plans to run for open Dist. 23 Senate seat

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

We’re six months from the filing deadline for the 2020 legislative races, and already, we have a competitive primary contest.

On Tuesday, Senate Transportation Committee chairman Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, announced he will not seek a seventh term in office.

Soon after, Mountain Home attorney Geoffrey Schroeder announced he will run for the spot. Schroeder is the former president of the Mountain Home City Council, and was previously active in the Elmore County Repubican Party. Schroeder also served in the Idaho National Guard.

Schroeder told Idaho Reports he is “excited to have the chance to represent District 23 in the Senate.”

On Thursday, Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, announced she also plans to run for the open seat.

“As much as I love my colleagues in the House, I believe that I can bring a much needed conservative perspective to the Idaho Senate,” Zito said in a press release. “Too often we see good, conservative legislation die or get ignored in the Senate, and I hope to change this.”

Zito was first elected in 2016 and currently serves on the House Agriculture, Judiciary, and State Affairs committees. During the 2019 session, she was the lead sponsor for a bill that lowered the age for concealed carry within city limits to 18 years old. Gov. Brad Little signed that bill into law in April.

District 23 encompasses Elmore and Owyhee counties, and has had a host of fascinating legislative races since the 2012 redistricting fight. Redistricting pitted sitting senators Brackett and Tim Corder against each other in the primary, in which Brackett beat Corder with 57 percent of the vote.

The 2016 primary was another hotly contested year for the district, with incumbent representatives Rich Wills and Pete Nielsen losing to newcomers Zito and Megan Blanksma, respectively.

Schroeder had previously served as Blanksma’s campaign treasurer. Blanksma, who is now the House Majority Caucus Chair, told Idaho Reports he is no longer in that role, and she is staying neutral on this Senate race.



Immunization requirements dominate IDHW rules testimony

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

At the first hearing for Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s reauthorized rules, one subject dominated the testimony: What role, if any, the government should play in compelling parents to immunize their children.

Of the 23 people who testified at Thursday’s hearing in Boise, all but one touched on immunization requirements. Most focused their entire testimony on vaccines.

Fourteen opposed state mandates, while eight encouraged the state to keep the current vaccination rules on its books. Some limited their testimony to the philosophy behind state mandates, while others got into the science of and claims about vaccinations.

Idaho already has permissive immunization exemption rules. This year, the legislature made permanent rules that further loosen guidelines by allowing exemption notes on any piece of paper, as opposed to asking parents to fill out a form provided by the school, district or daycare. This change came as other states, like Maine and New York, tightened up their immunization requirements, disallowing any exemptions other than for medical reasons. (See a map of school immunization requirements by state here, via the National Conference of State Legislatures.)

Idaho’s immunization rate among students dropped last school year, with 7.7 percent of students opting out of the mandated vaccinations. That’s up from 6.9 percent from the previous year, according to Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News. IDHW data shows the majority of those exemptions were for religious or other reasons, with just a small percentage of students — .3 percent – claiming medical reasons for exemptions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,203 measles cases have been confirmed this year in the United States as of Aug. 15, with the majority of those cases occurring in people who have not been vaccinated.

Both IDHW and the Idaho State Department of Education have encouraged guardians to vaccinate their children. Last year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra co-wrote a letter to then-IDHW director Russell Barron, outlining a 94 percent immunization rate. (Read more from Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News here.) And IDHW’s most recent blog post was on National Immunization Month. “High immunization rates across communities protect the health of those who are the most vulnerable for serious complications related to vaccine-preventable diseases, including infants and young children, the elderly, and people with chronic health conditions,” the post reads.

Other topics touched on in Thursday’s public comments include child welfare investigations and tests performed on newborn babies.

The hearing concerned existing rules that were reauthorized this year. As the state is so far along in the rulemaking process, it’s going to be difficult to make any changes before the final publication of rules in November, said Tamara Prisock, administrator of licensing and certification, at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Board of Directors meeting last week.

IDHW has five more public hearings on the existing rules scheduled throughout the state:

Aug. 23: 1 to 4 pm MDT, 150 Shoup Ave, 2nd Floor Conference Room, Idaho Falls

Aug. 26: 9 am to noon PDT, 1120 Iron Wood Drive, Lower Level Conference Room, Coeur d’Alene

Aug. 27: 10 am to noon PDT, 1118 F Street, 3rd Floor Conference Room, Lewiston

Aug. 27: 3 to 4:30 pm, 108 Grangeville Truck Route, Grangeville

Aug. 28: 1 to 4 pm, 601 Pole Line Road, Main Conference Room, Twin Falls

As for the department’s new rule dockets, each of those have their own hearings, or have already had hearings, Prisock said.